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Honest Customer Service Mistake or Police Discrimination

Starbucks Facing Allegations for Mistreating Officers... Again

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Matt Wujciak


Starbucks is at the center of controversy for the way law enforcement officials were treated by their partners, or front-line employees. The first incident that gained national attention took place on Thanksgiving morning when an Oklahoma police officer decided to do something nice for the other on-duty emergency dispatchers. He drove to his local Starbucks and ordered them all beverages. 

Read More: Aftermath of Racist Customer Service Incident at Buffalo Wild Wings

Employees label police order "PIG"

According to a Facebook post by Kiefer Police Chief Johnny O’Mara (as mentioned in CNN, Fox News, the New York Post, and numerous other news publications), when the officer received the order, the label on one of the cups — a venti hot chocolate — read “PIG.”

O’Mara contacted the Starbucks in Glenpool, Oklahoma, to complain and was told the store would happily replace the beverage with a correct label — which was not the apology he had sought. 

The original apology here from Starbucks can be credited for the national backlash that came of this incident. Keep in mind, this event followed another Starbucks/police incident. On July 4, a barista at a Starbucks in Tempe, Arizona, asked six police officers to move to a different spot in the store or leave after a customer complained their presence made him nervous. As I stated in a previous article, “handling unfair customer demands or requests that affect other customers can be a difficult task to deal with for many front line employees. However, customer service reps or employees of any position should never compromise moral ethics to solve an immediate customer complaint, especially when that complaint is unfair treatment, discrimination, or at the expense of another customer.”

Starbucks is already under scrutiny for a sensitive political and cultural issue. So any additional unacceptable behavior on behalf of the brand has the potential to become a much larger issue for the brand.   

More importantly, if a customer is genuinely offended by a derogatory remark or discriminatory customer service practice, the worst thing a brand can do is downplay the situation, attempt to sweep it under the rug, or fail to recognize the customer’s potential mood (being offended), and therefore, their potential behavior/reaction (a social media post that has viral potential). 

Failed apology campaign

If Starbucks had promised the officer that the employee would be dealt with (giving the customer some peace of mind), pay for the beverages, and additionally give the officer complimentary store credit, (as opposed to merely correcting the label of “PIG”), O’Mara would most likely not have taken his actions to Facebook, and the incident would not have gained national publicity. He may have even become a loyal Starbucks customer after recognizing that the brand truly takes responsibility for their employees and customer service. 

“What irks me is the absolute and total disrespect for a police officer who, instead of being home with family and enjoying a meal and a football game, is patrolling his little town,” O’Mara said.

Making matters worse, Starbucks is now making news for a third incident involving alleged mistreatment of law enforcement officers.

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The Seattle-based chain issued an apology this weekend after the latest Starbucks/police incident occurred in California last Thursday. Two sheriff’s deputies at a Riverside County barista said they were ignored at a store and left after waiting for around five minutes, possibly more. 

“Two of our deputies were refused service at Starbucks. The anti-police culture repeatedly displayed by Starbucks employees must end.”

According to USA TODAY, Sheriff Chad Bianco called attention to the episode on Friday when he tweeted from his office’s account saying, “Two of our deputies were refused service at Starbucks. The anti-police culture repeatedly displayed by Starbucks employees must end.”

While a five or six minute wait is no crime, intentionally mocking customers, local law enforcers, nonetheless, is an unprofessional act displayed by individual employees on behalf of a larger organization. Unfortunately, the brand of Starbucks, a brand that’s predicated on its history of quality customer service has to deal with larger repercussions and backlash after the two previous incidents are added on to the brand’s current image. 

In a video posted on Facebook, Bianco said the deputies were laughed at and “were completely ignored because they were in uniform. Quite honestly, that’s just not acceptable. It can’t be acceptable.”

Starbucks spokesman Reggie Borges said it was inexcusable for the deputies to receive the kind of treatment they did at the Riverside shop Thursday evening, admitting the mistake and taking responsibility. 

“We’re deeply sorry and we have reached out to the sheriff to apologize, and we’re hoping we can connect with the deputies directly and apologize as well,'' Borges said. “We’re taking full responsibility for any intentional or unintentional disrespect shown to law enforcement, on whom we depend on every single day.

“Taking full responsibility” is the best initial course of action a brand can take following a PR disaster, a disaster that took three tries to strategize the proper apology campaign. 

Granted, even three incidents may seem minor in the grand scheme of things. Starbucks, after all, handles millions of customers across thousands of locations every year.

Turning PR disasters into marketing masterpieces

The fact that these stories have generated headlines, nonetheless, serves as a reminder that even one incident can go viral - and shape perceptions of your brand - in today’s era of the social, empowered customer. That impact will be magnified when the situation taps into a contentious social issue; in this case, polarizing sentiment toward the police force.

While writing “PIG” seems pretty black-and-white, there will surely be cases in which bad customer service experiences involving police officers -- or any group whose treatment is under scrutiny-- are merely coincidental. Given the stakes, however, it is important for restaurants like Starbucks to not only evaluate all angles but to coach staff on particularly sensitive situations.

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Each additional incident that occurs on their behalf has a negatively spiraling effect that is gaining more and more national attention, risking blows to the brand’s reputation and questions about its ethics.

Starbucks does, however, have the opportunity to turn this PR disaster into a marketing masterpiece. They don’t have to replicate Johnson & Johnson’s apology campaign, sending a personalized apology song to thousands of targeted individuals in their database. 

However, a small gesture, such as free coffee for law enforcement for a day might be an appreciated gesture that saves losing customers, and the long-term brand image that Starbucks has built.